Category Archives: All things winter

Weather or Not: Hoping for another “Miracle Saturday”

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For the past three weekends, Crystal Mountain has been blessed with miracles. Three Fridays in a row we’ve had rainy, soggy, extremely windy storms turn cold and calm just in time to lay down enough snow for a powder Saturday. The weather gods might be trying to tell us something here: they are still in charge, but they are ultimately benevolent. The way I see it, the weather gods love weekend skiers and riders. Or maybe it has more to do with Pacific storms circling around low pressure systems, but hey, a girl can dream.

Last week, the rain and wind came Friday and threatened to ruin the cold snow from earlier in the week. But again, the weather gods blessed us with a reprieve, and Saturday we woke to fresh snow and cold temps. Here’s a little video clip from last Friday when the wind was nuking at the top of Rainier Express. When the patrollers got on the chair, it was still fairly calm at the top. It quickly ramped up while we were on the lift. Needless to say, the lift quickly went on wind hold.

Today is Thursday and once again the rain has returned. Yesterday ended in a beautiful afternoon, but now it’s raining at the base and snowing (just barely) at the top. These are the days when we are glad to have the gondola. A dry ride up goes a long way to lengthen the ski day. Today is a day for the hearty souls born and bred in the PNW, who don’t mind a little rain (either that or we just don’t know any better).

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The mountain came out Wednesday afternoon

The real question, however, is whether or not we will have another miracle Saturday. Will the weather gods, once again, bless us with a miracle?

This morning, I conferred with my most trusted source for weather: the magic 8 ball. I don’t know about you all, but whenever I have a high-stakes question of serious consequence, I head straight to this little black orb of wisdom. And guess what you guys? The signs point to yes!

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My most trusted source for weather!

While maybe not as accurate as the magic 8 ball, from time to time I still check in with the “professionals” in the weather forecasting biz. The weather gurus at UW Atmospheric Sciences department back up the magic 8 ball prediction, calling for a few inches of snow by Saturday morning and continuing throughout the day. The Sunday morning prediction is looking even better:

Snow Prediction

Monday looks to be a warm and wet day, with the long term models calling for more snow on Tuesday. We aren’t quite yet back into the earlier pattern where even when no snow was predicted, we’d still picked up a few inches every night as if those weather gods just couldn’t help themselves. But there are still good days ahead.

Only the magic 8 ball really knows.

I, for one, am hoping for a miracle.

 

Best Unmarked Lines at Crystal on Fatmap

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Snow Grooming: Making Perfect Corduroy

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Of all the jobs at a ski area, grooming the slopes at night might be the best one. You get to sculpt the slopes into perfect strips of corduroy at night, then rip them up the next morning. Snow-cat operators know when the slopes are at their prime. When Bruce Engdahl, Crystal’s lead winch cat operator, is in line at the Gondola in the morning, you know it’s going to be a good day on the slopes.

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Corduroy to Heaven

Henry Schink, Crystal’s Grooming Supervisor, says that “every night is a chance to make (the slopes) better.” Some nights are more challenging than others, however. On stormy nights, when the snowflakes hit his spotlight like that scene from Star Wars, just getting around the mountain becomes tricky. Those nights, Henry says, “you have to use the force.” You develop a close relationship to the trees, following them like handrails until you find a familiar landmark. In essence, you groom by feel. After a particularly busy day on the slopes, the cat crew knows they will have one or two curve balls that night. Around every corner might be a heavily skied area requiring an hour of cat maintenance to get it back in shape for the next day. Regardless of the snow conditions, these guys know their job is to rebuild the slopes so skiers and riders can enjoy them again the next day.

We ski patrollers rely on guys like Henry and Bruce to clean up the mountain, making our jobs exponentially easier. Every day the ski patrol puts in a list of grooming requests, from mucking out the bottom of lift terminals to filling in creeks to widening runs, and every night Henry, Bruce and the rest of their seven person crew try their best to knock down the moguls and rebuild the slopes.

Making perfect corduroy takes more than experienced operators. It also takes good machines. Crystal’s cats are all Pisten Bullys, and nearly all of them are 600s, the most powerful model. We use exclusively PB machines because with all the steep terrain and heavy snow at Crystal, we need the highest quality cats that are both robust and efficient. According to Mountain Manager Scott Bowen, PBs are the most durable cats on the market. We currently have 4 600 winch cats, 4 600 free cats, and a 200 maintenance cat. Each cat is equipped with the new alpenflex tiller with dumbo ears which allows for wider paths and immaculate grooming.

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The Piston Bully Diesel Electric Hybrid 600 E+

Two of our free cats are the new PB 600E+, a diesel electric hybrid that uses 35% less fuel, which is a huge reduction in cost and emissions. Crystal was the first ski area in North America to order the 600E+ last year, and we got two. Now, Vail and Alta each bought the 600E+ and Whistler Backcomb is currently demoing one.

Snow-cats are miracle workers on the slopes. Each blade full of snow can push 6 cubic yards of snow. At 1200lb each yard, that’s 7200lb of snow with every push. That’s over 3 metric tons.

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Bruce Engdahl hooked up in Green Valley on Christmas Day

Grooming the slopes is like snow farming. When it snows, cat operator fill in creeks and re-contour the slopes. During dry periods, cat operators farm snow by trimming thin strips off the grade or else pulling it from the edges of runs to rebuild the slopes. On Lucky Shot, where a winch cat is required, the main job is to push the snow at the bottom of each face back up on the slope. During the day, all the thousands of skiers and riders on this popular run move tons of snow downhill. Only with a big 600 winch cat and an experienced operator does Lucky Shot get rebuilt each night.

According to Scott Bowen, “we are blessed with amazing drivers.” It’s only with the skills of this talented crew and the big machines they chariot across the slopes do we end up with great skiing day after day.

Check out this video of grooming high angle slopes at Sugarloaf with a winch cat. And if you see Bruce in the line at the gondola this week, go ahead and give him a hug. We all owe these guys our gratitude.

 

This is What Ski Patrollers Live For

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Hard work is what ski patrolling is all about. Some might think that we’re in it for the skiing. And let’s be honest, skiing is a huge part of it. But if you want to really ski, I suggest simply getting a seasons pass.

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Rookie patroller Pat Chapelle finding his line in Silver Basin

But if you want to work hard, if you want earn some resilience, if you want to know how you react when the things go awry, then become a ski patroller.

This past month of December is a case in point.

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Patrollers humping powder on an early morning

The first week of December was kind of like a natural disaster up here. We had rain, wind, power outages, a closed access road and the complete loss of all communications. Oh, and the four horsemen of the apocalypse stopped by for a brief visit.

But then, mother nature flipped a switch and all that precipitation turned to snow. What had been merely a partial opening in Green Valley turned into an all-hands-on-deck-let’s-get-this-mountain-open-wall-to-wall frenzy. Suddenly we were opening from Northway to Southback and all points in between.

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Patroller tossing a shot on the Throne

Ski patrollers strung miles of rope lines, threw hundreds of caution boo along the slopes and drank copious amounts of coffee to keep up. Then it started to snow in earnest. In the month of December we received 9 feet of snow. Tower pads were quickly buried under this kind of dumpage.

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Lacing shots “in the field” as the sun rises

Our biggest efforts have gone towards Avalanche Control. Ski patrollers start avalanches with explosives before the slopes open in order to mitigate the hazard. This means we wake up early–sometimes at 4 am to be up before first light, carry heavy loads in our packs up the ridges and make avalanches. Some might say this is the best part of the job. It’s also the most exhausting.

Breaking trail up the ridges can be the hardest part. Here’s a video of Miles Morris breaking trail up the King. If you ever wonder why it takes so long to get Southback open on a powder day, here’s a little glimpse. And to all those folks that ask if they can help us out South to get it open, 1) no and 2) you wouldn’t want to waste a powder day breaking trail up the ridge. While the one ski run at the end might feel worth it, I’d say you’re better off staying in area for the leftovers and let us do the heavy lifting.

 

Not to say that that one run at the end of a control route isn’t awesome. It’s actually the raison d’etre for many of us.

But there’s more to it than that. To be honest, our real reason for being is the hard work. We’re the happiest when things are hard.

The statue of liberty might say it a little differently, but I think Emma Lazarus wouldn’t mind my slight changing of her words:

Give us your challenging weather, your injured skiers yearning to breathe free. Give us your wretched storms, your fiery tempests. Send these, the RV dwellers, the families tempest-tossed to us. We lift our headlamps beside the powdery door.

We are still in the midst of a busy holiday season, thanks to all this snow. The forecast prediction now is for a few weeks of more settled weather, but I have a feeling the days of powder and avalanche control have just begun.

Much More Snow in the Forecast

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My what a difference a couple of weeks makes. In late November we had begun to joke that perhaps our ski area had permanently shrunk to Green Valley. The snow had gotten thin near the bottom of the chair and our laughs were taking on a more grimaced nuance. Dry, chalky snow could still be found under the gondy line, and the warm inversion above the cold foggy city felt great.

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Green Valley November 20, 2015

But let’s be real. What we really want is snow. Not only do we want a solid base on the ground, we also need frequent top-offs. But if anyone had told me on November 30th what the next two weeks had in store, I would have laughed them off as crazy.

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Flakes the size of 10-year-olds fell on December 1st

December slammed into the Pacific Northwest like a drunken Santa on the world’s stormiest sleigh. A week into the month the four horseman of the apocalypse were standing by to wash us all down the mountain in a biblical storm. The gale of December 8th was so violent the fiber optic line, along with the power lines that feed Greenwater and Crystal, washed into the river. We had no outside communication for two days (which, if you ask me, was actually kind of nice).

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Miles breaking trail up the Throne in early December

The net result of that storm created great coverage up high, and quickly the snow started falling at the base too. Now, two weeks into the month we are open wall to wall. There’s over 53″ on the stake in Green Valley, which is above normal, and the forecast is calling for more snow.

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Southback filling in December 13, 2015

Much more snow.

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By next Tuesday we could have 30-40 more inches of snow

Cliff Mass is calling it “mountains of snow.” With three big snow-producing storms lined up in the Pacific, the forecast is calling for several feet of fresh snow over the next five days.

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This is what I’m talking about

It’s been years since the words feet and forecast have shared a sentence. Let that one sink in for a moment.

November and December are often our stormiest months, so this shouldn’t come as a complete shock. Perhaps its the weak winters of late that produce what I can only describe as a feeling of disbelief and awe. Part of me hesitates to even talk about the forecast lest I jinx it somehow.

When the forecasters are talking about mountains of snow, I think we can trust that, at the very least, we are going to have a very white Christmas.

3D Trail Map Coming to Crystal

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Ever wanted to ski the hill like a local? Ever wished the tiny trail map in your pocket showed all the best runs at Crystal? Fatmap 3D trail mapping app lets you do just that. For every skier or rider who has tried to follow the new buddy they just met on the gondy into Left Angle Trees and lost their guide before Elk Pass, this app is for you. This trail map is also for those that know the mountain pretty well, but want to find all the nooks and crannies that locals allude to in the bar, but never quite explain how to find. For locals who already know everything there is to know about Crystal Mountain, this app will help you put your knowledge to the test.

FATMAP-Mobile-3D-Ski-Maps-SocialDo I sound like a marketer? Maybe. But I know what I’m talking about because I wrote all the trail descriptions and (painstakingly) digitized the amazing satellite imagery used for these maps. (For those wondering why I’ve been absent from posting, this project has been a big part of that.)

Here’s how it works in a nutshell. You load the app on your phone. The free version shows all the marked runs plus the “points of interest” like restaurants and ski patrol locations (obviously the most interesting point of all *grin*). Just click on one of the marked runs and you will get a description of the trail. Click the “fly over” button and the view zooms to the top of the run then begins to fly over the run as if you were paragliding above it. It also follows you via GPS, so you can always figure out where you are.

FM_PR_July15_Grey_1-Device_ZMT-Wide-LRGFor a few bucks more you get the pro version, which includes all the unmarked (and often hard to find) runs at the ski area. This is the real beauty of this trail map. Ever wondered how to find Damn Fine Forest? Just click on the list of freeride names and voila! You will find this this honey of a stash as well as how to access it. Never knew where S-Bend Chute is? Well now you can.

Fatmap started offering this amazing app last season in Europe. It’s just now coming on line in North America. This is the wave of the future in negotiating your favorite ski area. It’s also the very best tool in your kit for impressing the bar flies in the Snorting Elk, or that good looking guy or gal who’ve been hoping to chat up. Just pull out your phone and show him or her the app. You’ll have him/her at “loading”.

In addition to Crystal, they’re also launching a version of Whistler, Alta/Snowbird, Aspen, Big Sky, Jackson Hole, Squaw, and a bunch of others great resorts.

So check it out.

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Snow in the Forecast

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After over a week of high pressure and inversion at Crystal Mountain, we finally have some snow in the forecast. While it has certainly been nice at the top of Crystal this week with calm winds, sunny skies and warm weather, I, for one, am ready for some frozen precipitation.

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Noaa Forecast for the summit of Crystal

Looks like our first shot of real snow could come Tuesday night, with up to 10 inches at the top. We should also get snow at the base too, although not as much as up high. Wednesday is looking like a 12 hour warm up, with rain in the afternoon turning back to snow by Thursday morning.

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72 Hour Snowfall Forecast ending 4am Saturday

By next weekend, all ski areas should have a net increase of at least a foot of new snow. Here at Crystal that translates into more open terrain. I’d love to see Rex and Forest Queen start spinning soon. And of course, Chair 6 and Northway will be next. Let’s all start our snow dances now!